Disruption warning over botched hospital parking plan

Patients, visitors and staff are being warned of possible disruption at Northern Ireland hospitals next week because of a botched car parking policy.

In 2022 the Assembly passed a law abolishing car parking charges at public hospitals in Northern Ireland.

In March, the Health Minister said that would need to be deferred for two years as hospitals were not ready.

However, the deferral legislation has not yet been passed so charges will be removed from 12 May.

The intention is to reintroduce the charges as soon as the legislation is finalised, which will probably be at the end of the month.

In the meantime people will be able to park for free without the hospitals having any new way to manage that, such as number plate recognition technology.

RVH car park

Congestion fears

In a statement the Department of Health said: "There are concerns that an increase in demand for parking during this limited free of charge period could lead to congestion at some hospital sites, potentially contributing to delayed or missed hospital appointments.

"In order to minimise disruption and protect car parking capacity for those most in need, we are asking for cooperation and understanding from all car parking users," it said.

The department is asking patients and visitors to allow extra time to get to appointments.

Staff are also being asked to maintain their normal parking arrangements in order to maintain capacity.

The deferral legislation is using Stormont's accelerated passage procedures and the fourth and final reading was in the Assembly on 7 May.

The department says it "remains hopeful" that the Royal Assent process will conclude by the end of May.

When he asked for the delay health minister Robin Swann said health trusts did not yet have the infrastructure required to manage free parking.

He added that this was due to legal challenges delaying a contract for automatic number plate recognition technology.

The ban on parking charges was brought forward as private members' bill by Sinn Féin assembly member Aisling Reilly in 2022.

It proposed that car parking charges should be abolished for patients, staff and visitors and received cross-party support.

The bill was also supported by some trade unions, but the health trusts made clear that its implementation would be challenging.

The Department of Health also pointed to concerns that increased demand as a result of free parking provision would add further to the pressure for spaces.